Reading Speed

JORGE LORENZO: MY STORY SO FAR

Posted in Biography by readingspeed on October 16, 2009

Ernest Riveras Tobia

J H Haynes & Co Ltd ISBN 1-84425-702-7

Initial impressions were not favourable. “My Story So Far” is the laziest possible title for a sporting personality’s biography and surrounds us with the tangy reek of an opportunistic and greedy boilerplate cash-in. The prosecution calls “Freddie” Flintoff, Wayne Rooney and Paula Radcliffe as witnesses. In Lorenzo’s case the crime is compounded by the fact that the Spanish, and original version, of this book had the original, evocative and almost poetic title Por Fuera Desde DentroAround The Outside From The Inside.

We also have to recognise that it take a certain type of person to consider that there is value to be offered in a biography published, and presumably written somewhat earlier, when one is 21 years of age. Even Valentino Rossi, himself not a model of rectitude or modesty, waited until he was 27 before releasing his book – What If I Hadn’t Been Such An Insufferable Narcissist? So, before we even crack the cover this volume has two black marks against and, painful as it is to report, it’s all downhill from there.

The book is simply an assortment of vignettes from Lorenzo’s short but eventful life arranged in apparently random order and sporadically garnished with Jorge’s pseudo-intellectual musings on a variety of philosophical subjects. This format could work well for an appropriate subject but for a poorly educated 21 year old whose cultural frame of reference is bounded by the Playstation Network and Facebook it is, in this instance, largely crass and irrelevant.

It is redeemed in the slightest by degree by giving us some insight into Lorenzo’s character; for example his unconsummated straight-on-straight bromance with Alex Debón is presented in heretofore undocumented detail. Beyond this there is very little insight and Lorenzo’s habit of submitting totally to a strong personality then having an acrimonious and lasting disagreement about money is illustrated in only the most coy terms possible.

RS Rating: 1/10

THE GRAND PRIX MOTORCYCLE: THE OFFICIAL TECHNICAL HISTORY

Posted in Technology by readingspeed on September 3, 2009

Kevin Cameron

J H Haynes & Co Ltd ISBN 1-84-425528X

With a bald pate and fierce unkempt beard like a rhododendron bush Kevin Cameron bears more than a passing resemblance to Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin. The congruencies do not end there as Cameron is similarly revered as a polymath and philosopher although by motorcycle enthusiasts rather than the anarcho-communists that venerate dear old Prince Peter.

TGPM: TOTH easily lives up to its wordy and, it has to be said, pretentiously colon-bisected title. It is a wonderfully forensic examination of the evolution of the GP motorcycle in the modern post war era. As might be expected by a writer of Cameron’s calibre both the minutiae of technical development and the broader, strategic arc of engineering effort are recorded and contextualised in a lucid and entertaining manner. Cameron’s true gift as a writer really shines in those periods when GP motorcycle development lay fallow for many seasons. The impeccable research and immaculate presentation give even the periods of slower development equal prominence and interest.

If the book has a fault it is the relentless focus on the machine. The allure of motorcycle racing is somehow diminished when shorn of its human drama. However, in its somewhat narrow frame of reference this book is without peer and despite the stiff price of admission is an essential acquisition for that reason alone.

RS Rating: 8/10

JAMES WITHAM: WHAT A GOOD DO

Posted in Biography by readingspeed on September 3, 2009

James Witham with Mac McDiarmid

J H Haynes & Co Ltd ISBN 1-84-4254925

The initial indicators from “What a Good Do” are not hopeful. First, we have the promise, or perhaps threat, of a foreword by Carl Fogarty. Amazingly, restraint is exercised and it is not until the second paragraph of the foreword that Carl tells us just how incredible he is. Second, we have a rather coy formulation telling us the book was written “with” Mac McDiarmid. I’m sure that MMcD is fine journalist and a robust man of letters however he must have a special template set up in MS Word for all these biographies of second rate British motorcycle racers he is ghost writing.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I cracked open the covers of this book. My overwhelming concern was that it would fall prey to the cliché of many autobiographical works in which the subject has had a brush with a life threatening illness. It was my great fear that chapter one would be a hospital scene with a recounting of Witham’s struggle with Hodgkin’s Disease. But, no, the temptation of reversion to that hackneyed saw is resisted and the events of Witham’s Künstlerroman are presented in strictly chronological order.

The result is an entertaining, insightful and unsententious examination of Witham’s eventful, if not consistently successful career and is enhanced by a colourful cast of supporting characters such as Witham’s father. While, at times, the book can read like a primer for trainee orthopedic surgeons, it is a fine addition to the canon of motorcycle racer biographies.

RS Rating: 9/10

THE LIFE OF SENNA

Posted in Biography by readingspeed on June 16, 2009

Tom Rubython

BusinessF1 Books ISBN 978-0954685706

There is a none too subtle implication in the title of this book. Calling it The Life of Senna gives us the tacit proposal that there is something more to Senna than just his life; that he is a metaphysical construct with a relevance beyond his worldly existence. This notion is well founded by the facts of Senna’s dramatic life and death – he achieved greatness in a relatively short time and then died in order to redeem a future generation of F1 drivers from racing culture that placed little emphasis on safety. Even the cover of the book depicts Senna in a reflective and lugubrious cast in the manner of a saint in a Florentine portrait of the proto-renaissance.

Senna is both a bane and a blessing for a biographer in that he offers everything: ecstasy, tragedy, intrigue, politics, a diminutive French nemesis in Prost and an epic legal battle over the circumstances of his death as a coda. On the matter of documenting the arc of Senna’s career and the motivation that propelled him the author does a fine job. However, perhaps overwhelmed, by the sheer magnitude of Senna the author is tempted by the indulgence of many distracting and unnecessary longueurs. There are several prurient and superfluous passages about Senna’s life that have the suspicious whiff of speculative fiction about them.

Ultimately this book is flawed by its subscription to the beatification of Senna. It has a whole chapter exclusively devoted to Senna’s pseudo-religious utterings. These pronouncements are not coherent and certainly did not inform Senna’s, inconsistent at best, personal moral conduct. Senna’s career and life has ample drama and interest; it does not need to be embroidered by trite demi-religious insights that have as much relevance or insight as the crazed mumblings of a bus stop dwelling derelict.

RS Rating: 5/10

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TOP DEAD CENTER

Posted in Journalism by readingspeed on April 7, 2009

Kevin Cameron

Motorbooks ISBN 0-7603-2727-0

Being a motorcycle journalist is rather like being a podiatrist. You have the trappings of the profession, even a measure of respect but ultimately you are not doing the journalistic equivalent of a corneal transplant you’re just shaving bunions. There are a few honourable exceptions to this generalisation and Kevin Cameron is the prime and luminous example.

He has written for Cycle World magazine for over a quarter of a century. His offerings started on the subject of racing, slowly transformed into a regular column on technical matters before eventually becoming a more general yet profound meditation on the nature of motorcycles and our emotional relationship to them. This book is a collection of Cameron’s best work grouped into loose themes.

The writing is uniformly strong throughout the book and I feel it would be a disservice to identify any particular section as stronger than the other but I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of life as a mechanic in the dying days of AMA two stroke racing in the 70s. Not only are the technical minutiae of preparing a KR750 for a race present in immaculate detail but the quiet desperation of budget constrained privateer racing is recorded with an authentic fidelity never seen in any other book.

Cameron is an excellent writer who, had he chosen a different obsession in life, could have scaled the heights in any other journalistic specialty. He not only has an outstanding gift for articulating technical matters in a precise style but also excels at communicating the intangible and abstract facets of the motorcycling experience.

RS Rating: 10/10

MOTOGP TECHNOLOGY

Posted in Technology by readingspeed on March 18, 2009

Neil Spalding

J H Haynes & Co Ltd ISBN 1-84-425310-4

Despite its pervasive influence on our contemporary culture it’s remarkable to reflect that almost everything we know about the details of everyday life in the Roman Republic comes from the writing of one man – Publius Cornelius Tacitus. No other significant and informative bodies of work from that period have survived intact and the only view we have of life in the Roman Republic is the one chronicled and interpreted by Tacitus.

The formative seasons of MotoGP after the 2 strokes had been cast beyond the city wall also have one definitive and authoritative work of record in this book. Even viewed from a the distance of a few years the 990cc era of MotoGP, as recorded by Spalding, seems to be a long distant era of innovation and fecund diversity. From the barren uplands of the 2009 season the days of 9 different manufacturers and private teams seem like a distant fertile valley.

Spalding records all of the technical challenges faced by the team with precise prose and opulent photography. This book easily justifies its ambitious price tag with outstanding production values. He seems to have had access to the team’s designers and engineers of an unusually candid nature and presents and supplements this information with perceptive and expert analysis. For this book’s intended audience, the MotoGP maven, the technical details will be eagerly seized upon and digested. However no matter what level of detail is served up on the evolution of the Yamaha M1 crankshaft or the Kawasaki ZX-RR swingarm it never seems enough. Also, a second volume covering the transition to the 800cc era is badly needed. Like guests at a Roman cena, we are engorged yet crave more.

RS Rating: 9/10

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FOGGY – THE EXPLOSIVE AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Posted in Biography by readingspeed on March 1, 2009

Carl Fogarty with Neil Bramwell

HarperCollinsWillow ISBN 0-00-218961-5

Explosive is an adjective normally associated with roadside bombs or dysentery not biographies. To come close to being explosive this book would either have to give the reader amoebic diarrhea, cripple them with an improvised munition or perhaps tell us shocking things about Carl Fogarty that we didn’t already know. Anybody with even a passing interest in motorcycle racing already has a fully formed and probably unfavourable opinion about Carl.

Foggy – TEA initially does very little to improve Fogarty’s brand equity with the reader. In the first few pages we only have to read about his proclivity for burning the long suffering Mrs Fogarty with a hot spoon and tales of pubescent animal cruelty to realise we are in the presence of A Very Special Person. If Fogarty has a charm it is that he is utterly unencumbered by any concern about other people’s opinion of him. This happens to be a valuable trait for an autobiographer as it naturally leads to less self-censorship and restraint.

Thus we are treated to an unvarnished and authentic account of the career that led Fogarty to four World Superbike titles. Of course, honesty comes easily when one is being consistently successful. It would have been fascinating to see if the searing light of Fogarty’s introspection would have remain undimmed when he contemplated his less successful post-riding career as a team owner and manager. Unfortunately, that question remains, for the moment, unanswered as Foggy – TEA ends with the 2000 season.

The book’s other major flaw is that Fogarty does succumb to the universal autobiographer’s temptation of settling old scores. On occasion this can be entertaining and interesting when the feud is with another notable personality. But do we really need to know the details of Fogarty’s long running fight with his Uncle Brian? Does it add any heft to the story to know that the Fogarty – Uncle Brian casus belli were Foggy branded ceramic plates? No and no.

RS Rating: 3/10

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STALKER!

Posted in Biography by readingspeed on February 24, 2009

Chris Walker with Neil Bramwell

HarperSport, ISBN 978-0-00-725986-1

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote his searing indictment of Soviet totalitarianism, The Gulag Archipelago, he didn’t feel the need to further embellish the title of his Nobel prize winning epic with a terminal exclamation mark and call it The Gulag Archipelago! Quite why Walker thought it necessary to do so with his biography is not readily apparent.

The book gets off to an unpromising start with a detailed description of his wedding. Why? As an attempt to illuminate the man rather than the racer it utterly fails by concentrating on prosaic and declasse details of no possible interest to the reader – Jamie Witham was ‘pissed’ by 3:00pm – fascinating. Of course, it could be that the initial focus on the wedding was intended to start the book on a high note and Walker has had relatively few of those on the track so we are left with the Bildungsroman of Walker dancing to Don’t Stop Me Now at his wedding reception.

Walker is one of the multitude of British riders who have oscillated between the British Superbike Series, some of the less well funded World Superbike teams and the very lowest strata of Grand Prix racing. This is a very familiar story that has been retold by different riders on numerous occasions. Initially, Walker brings very little fresh insight to this well worn narrative. We have the customary juvenile delinquency, educational underachievement and progress through the ranks of club racing. As is usual this is garnished with tales of financial and contractual treachery and the eternal theme of all motorcycle racers – sub-standard machinery compared to those of his competitors.

However, as the book develops we do come see Walker as an entertaining narrator with a pithy turn of phrase. Food in the Czech Republic is handsomely summarised thusly: Every meal is like Sunday dinner but shit. Another emergent theme which adds tremendously to the entertainment value is that Walker is a rider who makes habitually very bad career decisions. Turning down a lucrative Erion AMA FX/SS ride in order to bet his future on the Moto Cinelli BSB fiasco is a notable but by no means isolated example.

All of Walker’s many setbacks and injuries are borne with good humour and fortitude until the BSB season of 2000. After three consecutive 2nd place finishes in the series Walker was three laps away from finally winning the championship when engine failure cruelly robbed him of the title. The open and honest description of his emotions and actions in hours immediately following the race are some of the best writing in the book and it’s these passages that elevate Stalker! above the flock of BSB biographies.

The book finishes at the end of Walker’s indifferent 2007 BSB season with Rizla Suzuki and provides no satisfying or logical conclusion to the narrative. An updated version with details of Walker’s turbulent 2008 season in WSS and WSBK would be welcome.

RS Rating: 8/10

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